By Leah Kellar
More than 20 SMS Engineering Ltd. staff proudly hold the accreditation of being LEED-certified innovative solutions providers for sustainable development in Canada. After an impressive 49 years of business, the company, which provides integrated mechanical and electrical engineering services for a broad range of construction projects of both new and existing facilities, is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year with a nod to its latest energy-efficient design and development projects backed by LEED accreditation.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system established in 2002 that is the international mark of excellence for green building in more than 132 countries. “SMS Engineering was one of the first companies to become involved in LEED,” V. Stirling Walkes, Principal LEED Senior Mechanical Engineer told Business Elite Canada in a recent interview to mark the company’s half-century milestone in business. Walkes estimates that he was likely the 5thor 6th person in the province of Manitoba to receive the designation at a time when sustainable development was a relatively new concept. Prior to embarking on his current 15-year career with SMS, Walkes worked in support of the environmental department of a consulting firm where he met a colleague who was outspoken about sustainable development, and had written a few articles on the subject.
“It was always in the back of my mind to do some things that were environmentally sustainable, whether it’s for conservation or economically a little better for the client to have a more efficient building,” said Walkes.
That was just the beginning of a new era for SMS. In 1965, the company was founded in partnership of three mechanical professional engineers: Ray Scouten, Bill Mitchell, and Dennis Sigurdson. Initially it was under the name of Scouten Mitchell Sigurdson & Associates Limited.
Teaming up provided the company founders with greater opportunity to get a variety of projects on different types of buildings, and a greater chance of mentorships with many senior engineers and designers already on board within the first few years.
The firm ventured into the electrical side of the market in 1970 through an acquisition. Walkes acknowledges that mechanical service still encompasses about 60 per cent of work completed. The company has also doubled in the number of employees in the past 15 years from approximately 35 to 70. The name was formally changed to SMS in 2000— a revision of the company name to the surname initials of its founders. SMS was incorporated in Manitoba and is wholly owned and directed by engineers and technicians active in the firm and residing in the province. Specialized LEED accreditation by numerous staff in the firm has been a major selling point of benefit to clients since the early half of the past decade, bringing SMS into an exciting new era of practical strategies in the design concepts of buildings and development for greater natural energy conservation.
“I was always interested in doing energy conservation and LEED encompasses everything. LEED has helped get the entire project team together using the integrated design process, and then getting everyone to focus on portions of the building to make it better. LEED also has the other aspect of a benefit to the occupants in things like daylight harvesting, and natural ventilation that contribute to a healthier environment for people,” said Walkes.
Walkes took the energy conservation route approximately 14 years ago when he started at SMS retrofitting and condensing boiler plants and chiller plants in existing schools. At that time schools often had steam boilers, which were more convenient as opposed to hot water boilers, which are more efficient. From that time forward, SMS has almost exclusively specified condensing boilers unless the system required too much of an overhaul to incorporate the switch.
One of SMS’s more interesting and memorable projects was one completed for the Richardson College for the Environment at the University of Winnipeg. Important green features in that school included heat reclamation of laboratory exhaust. Another in 2003, one of Walkes’ first LEED targeted projects, was Oscar Lathlin Collegiate at the Opaskwayak Cree Nation where he completed a geothermal design with a dedicated outdoor air delivery system. Put on hold for about five years after design was completed, it was restarted in 2011, becoming one of SMS’s first LEED “shadow” projects.
“It was quite an interesting school. This whole soccer field has a geothermal heat exchanger built underneath it, and then you’ve got distributed heat pumps throughout the building, and heat recovery in the ventilation system. It was one of the best buildings that we’ve done in a while. The architect used some day-lighting strategies and the use of a “trombe” wall to use solar energy to heat a corridor with ceiling fans to help distribute heat” recalls Walkes.
“We’ve pushed the envelope a little bit and been rewarded for things like that.” SMS has recently received awards from ASHRAE and the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of Manitoba for the Richardson College for the Environment.
As for current projects SMS is wrapping up the construction phase in the next two months on the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s, Journey to Churchill exhibit— the most comprehensive project ever undertaken in Canada related to climate change, polar bears and other northern species.
“We’ve designed a district geothermal system there where we’re connecting four different buildings to a common geothermal loop and sharing energy between each of those buildings because some of them might have a little stronger cooling load where the other ones are in heating and they’re able to share that energy among those buildings and not just back to the field,” explained Walkes.
“The Assiniboine Park Zoo has been a staple in Winnipeg for years and its great to be apart of that resurgence there and to be involved with all of the interesting changes going on. They’re dedicated to being sustainable as well, so we’ve helped design a couple of LEED buildings within the site, and the overall site itself will be really fantastic when it’s completed in the next few months.”
While many things have changed over the past half-century at SMS, the company’s major clientele remain in the healthcare industry. SMS does most of the mechanical and electrical work for the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, in addition to similar project work for various schools and tenants in the city.
In dealing with market challenges in the province lately, Walkes noted that Manitoba is fairing well.
“Manitoba hasn’t really dried up at all. I think it’s been fairly strong for the past few years, wherein the east things may have slowed down quite a bit. Farther west Alberta has been fairly strong as well and they think they might be dropping off a little bit on projects as the contractors you’re seeing come out of Alberta to pick up some work here, but generally we’ve been very strong here,” he said.
However, he does recognize a potential problem in the next generation of contract construction.
“Contractors have been struggling a bit with their resources and getting skilled trades. There’s a lot of retirement going on and so some of the trades are falling away, and not everyone coming up is interested in the trades, they’re more interested in computer and other industries, some of the guys that do come up are more interested in the Alberta oil industry and getting paid at a higher rate than what they might get here,” said Walkes.
He credits provincial incentives in Manitoba for maintaining the amount of thermal trades contractors entering and remaining in the market. He acknowledges that Manitoba hydro is interested in providing incentives to save electrical costs and reduce electrical consumption.
“If you have electric heat in a town and you use geothermal and heat pumps, it reduces their peak loads, so it’s an incentive for people to go geothermal in remote areas,” said Walkes. “Looking forward, I’d suggest clients consider as many things as they can for a particular project. Geothermal depends on a life-cycle analysis to make sure it’s the right solution for the building owner’s problem.”
Doing what’s right economically for the client is ultimately at the heart SMS Engineering. Maintaining the current clientele is important to SMS, this includes the short-term goal of servicing their architectural clients and developers to participate in critical ongoing future developments and to grow communities.
“We try to just build the best building we can these days and try to encourage sustainability, not necessarily abiding by the LEED points to a tee, but still using these guidelines as much as we feasibly can,” explains Walkes. “LEED was essentially a good thing to have to get people thinking about sustainability in the first place, driving forward, and trying to make sure that we get the best buildings built. In doing that we put out challenges to various people, ourselves included, to push the boundaries a bit and encourage the owners to step out of their comfort zone to try and do something different.”